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Clinical Implications of Priming in Psychotherapy

By: , Posted on: February 9, 2015

warren tryon lion king 1Principle 5, as presented in my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, concerns Priming. I defined Priming in Blog 21 and on page 227 of my book as follows:

The APA Concise Dictionary of Psychology (APA, 2009) defines priming in cognitive psychology as ‘… the effect in which recent experience of a stimulus facilitates or inhibits later processing of the same or similar stimulus’ (p. 395).

In Blog 21 I mentioned that “priming is one of the most well replicated psychological phenomena that psychological science has to offer (click here for a link to my blog archive). Priming is such a dependable phenomenon that social psychologists use it in their experiments to modify how people think and behave.

I discuss the following types of priming in Chapter 4 of my book: repetition priming, semantic and lexical priming, conceptual priming, affective priming, cultural priming, idea-motor priming, and active-self prime-to-behavior effects.” Blogs 22 and 23 also concerned priming. Here I focus on the clinical implications of priming.

Cognitive bias modification (CBM) is a major clinical application of priming. CBM presumes that children and adults naturally process information in a biased way. Attention bias has received a great deal of attention. On page 511 of my book I report that:

MacLeod et al. (1986), Mathews and MacLeod (1985), and Mogg and Bradley (1998) have shown that anxious people are automatically hyperattentive towards potentially threatening material. Watts et al. (1986) and Martin et al. (1992) have shown that this tendency slows color naming on the emotional Stroop test because attention to the threat word competes with attention to the color name. For example, Martin et al. (1992) reported that children fearful of spiders took longer to name the color of words such as ‘creepy’ and ‘hairy’ than to name the color of words such as ‘table’ and ‘cars’. A metaanalytic review by Bar-Haim et al. (2007) supports these effects. Vasey et al. (1995, 1996), Dalgleish et al. (2001), and Taghavi et al. (1999) reported evidence of biased attention in children using the dot-probe detection task described in Chapter 4. Attention biases prime the network in undesirable ways that clinicians need to address and correct as much as possible.

Interpretation bias has also received considerable attention. It consists of disproportionately interpreting ambiguous situations as threatening. The following is one creative way to measure this bias in children. Children are told that stories will be read to them and that some of the stories have a good ending and others have a bad ending. Their task is to tell the story reader which ending the story will have as soon as they think that they know what the outcome will be.

Children with a negative interpretation bias are those who disproportionately anticipate negative endings. Cognitive bias modification therapy uses priming to treat these and other biases. These treatments prime with positive words and situations in order to counteract the tendency to think in negative terms. Hallion and Ruscio (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of CBM across 45 studies (n = 2,591). They reported that CBM significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety but not depression.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy coverRead more from Warren Tryon on SciTech Connect:

Warren’s book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy.

About the Author

Warren ComputerWarren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy.

In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage.

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